The cross at the top of the refectory church in Kyiv’s Pechersk Lavra sanctuary has turned from gold to black.
Or so Metropolitan Onufry, the head of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, after its priests and monks – regarded by Kiev as Moscow hardliners – were ordered by the government to vacate the site of the Cave Monastery in the Ukrainian capital by the end of the month.
“The Orthodox people are very sad and desperate,” said Lyudmila, a visitor to the sprawling complex and a follower of the Onufri Church. “They are trying to kill our faith.”
With its churches, monasteries and catacombs containing the relics of saints, the 1,000-year-old Lavra is one of the holiest places in Eastern Orthodoxy. It has also become a new battleground in Ukraine’s struggle to shake off Russian influence and control.
The UOC, Ukraine’s largest religious community, was until recently subordinate to the patriarchate in Moscow and a bastion of Russian influence.
But it has been in turmoil since Vladimir Putin ordered a full-scale invasion of Ukraine last year, sparking a backlash among parishioners and some of its priests against Russian ecclesiastical control and the church’s Moscow head, Kirill, a staunch supporter of the war.
In May last year, Onufri declared independence from the Moscow Patriarchate. But the move failed to convince its smaller rival, the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, led by Metropolitan Epiphanius, which broke away from Russian control in 2018. Nor could it convince the Ukrainian government. They both say the UOC is still under Russian ecclesiastical and political control.
Oleksiy Danilov, Ukraine’s national security chief, said monks and priests at the Lavra were also infiltrated by spies from Russia’s Federal Security Service, or FSB.
Archbishop Yevstrati, a spokesman for the pro-Kyiv OCU, said Ukraine’s security services had shown that its major rival is still subordinate to the Moscow Patriarchate which is “not a real religious institution, but part of the Kremlin”.
“The Lavra is like the sacred heart of Ukraine,” Yevstrati said. “Moscow understands that, as long as it holds this heart in its hands, Russian influence will return, it will conquer Ukraine and reestablish sacred unity.”
UOC Church spokesman Metropolitan Clement responded, “We have no affiliation.” “There is no subjugation. We do not coordinate [with Moscow]”
Ukrainian authorities have been tightening the screws on Onufry’s church for months. In November, counterintelligence agents raided the Lavra and several other sites as part of an investigation into pro-Russian influence operations.
A priest was arrested in December for allegedly leading a service with pro-Russian chants while other prominent figures in the UOC were cleared for their ties to Moscow.
On March 10, the Ministry of Culture, which officially owns the Lavra site, said Onufry’s church had violated the terms of its lease and would not renew it after it expired on March 29.
President Volodymyr Zelensky, who has previously distanced himself from strife between Ukraine’s churches, has backed the Lavra’s clear-out as “a movement to strengthen our spiritual freedom”. Zelensky, born to Jewish parents, is not religious.
But the end of the lease sets the scene for a tense stand-off between Ukrainian law enforcement and Onufri’s monks and priests, who have vowed to stay in court and fight the eviction.
“It’s not a good look,” said one European diplomat, who feared the dispute could give Moscow a propaganda victory.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Friday that the end of the Lavra lease for UOC priests and monks “confirms the correctness of special operations in Ukraine” – the Russian government’s term for the war.
Kyiv has promised not to evict UOC priests and monks by force.
“Ukraine is a democratic, tolerant European country,” said Culture Minister Oleksandr Tkachenko. “No one raises the question of expelling the monks. We are talking about the return of state-owned property, both movable and immovable.”
UOC spokesman Kliment said Zelensky and his ministers were using the Lavra controversy to distract from corruption and the enormous human toll of the war.
“Now there are huge numbers of people we are burying every day. Instead of this drama, they offer us a soap opera which runs till March 29.
“Of course there are people who supported Russia and the Russian military but not the whole church,” said Sergei Chapnin, a senior fellow in Orthodox Christian studies at Fordham University in the US. Chapinin said the Lavra controversy could have been averted if Onufri had removed some senior clerics who expressed their pro-Moscow sympathies and connections.
But now the Ukrainian government was embroiled in a “battle between the churches” that it could not win because it would have to explain to many of the church’s faithful and allies in Kiev why it made the move. The cost of running the Lavra will also have to be borne.
“We pray,” Lyudmila said. “We don’t know what more we can do to prove that we are Ukrainians. We are not citizens of Russia.